Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

ISBN: 0716727188
ISBN 13: 9780716727187
By: Robert M. Sapolksy Robert M. Sapolksy

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About this book

A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and CopingCombining cutting edge research with a healthy dose of humor and practical advice, Sapolsky explains how prolonged stress causes or intensifies mental afflictions.

Reader's Thoughts


Right, I finished it maybe a month and a half ago, and never got around to writing a review. I'm going to correct that since this book deserves one.The book starts out describing what stress is. In a nutshell, the body's stress-reponse is what the body does when there is a physical emergency (a lion, for the zebra). In this context the stress-response makes sense. Repairing damage, fighting diseases, digesting food, all of that can wait until the lion is no longer a threat. Then the response can stop, and all those activities put to the side can resume.Which doesn't happen when you live in an environment of chronic stressors.With this setup, the next few chapters go into the technical details of the stress-response. How it's activated, the role that important hormones play, and what changes occur in your body, and how your body goes from there back to its normal state. And when it doesn't, that's where the problems start.The book's has a peculiar style that I enjoy. It tackles a serious, unhappy subject with a light touch and fun to read prose. It's also littered with funny anecdotes that help to lighten the mood. But there are serious moments as well. The second to last chapter that examines poverty is the most powerful part of the book.If you've ever wondered about stress at all, this is an excellent place to start. It's detailed, fun to read and it makes you think.


This was my text for my Health Psychology class. The only complaint I have about this book is that sometimes it is hard to follow because there are no bolded words or explanations on the side, like ANY other book relating to science would have.But it is very funny, very interesting, very well-researched, and very thought-provoking. Sapolsky has a way of explaining complicated concepts in an approachable way. You will learn how to be aware of, be knowledgable about, and better attack the stress in your life!


Robert Sapolsky does a fantastic job of detailing every nuance of stress in relation to physiology. I will never look at a glucocorticoid the same way again. Although the text did get fairly complex at times, Sapolsky used real-life studies, examples, and metaphors to explain the more technical content. He also did a great job integrating the psychology of stress. In fact, the book was very balanced in regard to physiological and psychological interactions with the stress response and various "stress diseases." Finally, Sapolsky was able to wrap everything up with sound, realistic advice on stress management. Honestly, his summary provided all anyone really needs to know about stress reduction and prevention of diseases related to stress. Overall, the text was slow in some spots but the book was very enjoyable and educational.

Chris Gard

Brilliant book, very insightful on the structures and sequences of stress, stress-responsiveness and consequential diseases and pathology related to socioeconomic status, perception of situations and broad inclusions of outcomes of certain upbringings.Loss of a rating would be to Sapolsky's almost loss of train of thought on a lot of topics, some metaphors are sporadic and unrelated, yet others are almost graceful in their applicability. However, in a lot of instances in his writings, he paints a very clear and concise picture when demonstrating various scenarios depicting stressful situations and the variables of outcomes, from as far as transient stress and it's coinciding joy (or pleasure), to chronic stress and the proceeding disease and mental dysfunctions.It is both humorous and intellectual, and boasts to be an item of utter genius.4/5 would read again.

Bob Klein

Sapolsky is an amazing writer and Primate's Memoir ranks as one of my favorite books. That said, the title, cover, and prior experience with Primate's Memoir led me to have unrealistic expectations of this book. It is thorough and well-written, but approaches the topic of stress from a phsyiological perspective that doesn't spare any of the details. As such, it often calmed my stress by putting me to sleep. The subtitle's promise of a section on "coping" with stress didn't pan out, and amounted to a few pages of an attempt at the end of the book. If you're looking for a tutorial on the physiology of stress and its relationship to a wide variety of human ailments and conditions (sickness, age, gender, etc.) then you might like this more than I did.


This is a pretty good book on stress, in animals as well as humans. I like his scientific style (though as with most academics, his prose style could be improved). He has a straight-forward way of presenting complex information without dumbing it down too much (I've been comparing it to an actual endocrinology textbook). The end of the book also provides a much-needed element of perspective on what it really means to be poor in America, discussing why universal health care won't make a huge difference to the health of the poor, for example.


** spoiler alert ** Jen told me I should check out this book because it was part of her reading for her Masters of Social Work program. Sapolsky is an entertaining and fun author and the book breaks down the scientific and physiological aspects of stress response in a way that is easily understood for people like me who don't know much about the subject. I actually kind of understand neurotransmitters now - I'm dangerous.Something you should know before embarking on this book, though, is that it's mostly 300+ pages of why stress is bad for you, in a lot of detail. During the book Sapolsky often refers to the final chapter in which he will give some tips on what can be done to cope effectively with stress. When you get there, though, it really isn't very empowering. Most of the tips come with caveats and qualifications and frankly the chapter is a drop in the bucket of bad news you've been reading up to that point. So you should just know that going in.


To summarize: Adrenaline is a DEATH drug. It's designed to keep you alive for the next 15 seconds, or to ease your death. As such, it's necessarily thriftless. If you can survive to the 16th second only by losing a limb, it's worthwhile to sacrifice the limb. Otherwise, it's wasteful and disabling.Zebras don't get ulcers because they (mostly) only release stress hormones 'in the event of an actual emergency'. Humans deliberately evoke stress on an everyday basis, and the reckless decisions the body makes under the influence of stress hormones, too often, results in the loss of limbs, supression of the immune system, etc.Recommendation: don't pull the fire alarm unless there's a real fire.


Robert Sapolsky is one of my favorite science writers. I generally find his work engaging, informative, and conversational, and “Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers” is no exception. This book is dense! It is jam packed with information on how your body reacts to and copes with stress. By the end of it, I found my self wondering if there was anything that glucocorticoids couldn't screw up. Though parts of it did drag a bit (for me), on the whole I found the chapters in this book to be interesting and full of useful information. I was a bit disappointed with the last chapter, however. I was hoping for more concrete suggestions on how to deal with and lessen stress. But perhaps that was an impractical expectation on my part. I would recommend this book to anyone who worries about what effect their stressful life might be having on their mind and body. This book will clearly lay out those effects in detail, and knowing what's going on (why you aren't sleeping, why you are gaining weight, for example) is the first step to stopping it.


Most of the book describes the physiology of what happens in your body, under stress, and explanations as to why it happens. It is a whole catalog of all the different kinds of stressors and how it can be downward spiral, if not kept in check. Suggestions as to what to do to keep stress in check come near the end, and aren't really that new. Exercise, meditate, use healthy outlets for frustration and find social support. His examples of what stress does to a person come from scientific research and the information is so comprehensive that the author tries to keep things light with a sense of humor, which was appreciated, but didn't fully outweigh the deluge of stress information.An interesting stop along the way was when the author indicated that research showed that access to health insurance didn't matter much as to people availing themselves of the services. What actually did matter was affluence. He humorously suggested that to provide the best healthcare for yourself, you needed to choose rich parents.About Exercise, he said that its effects help your body for some hours, up to 24 hours after ending exercise. And that exercise you hate does the opposite -- it increases your stress. So, find something you like to do, to exercise. He said that meditation only helps during the time you are meditating. Finding healthy outlets for frustration which can give the perception of control. As with a lot of what he says, there are two sides. With the perception of control, you can feel that having it was good, or the situation would have been worse, or if the situation is sufficiently bad, you may feel that your control made the situation worse. Social Support he says is more than just socializing. Finding people who share your flavor of stress and can show that there is hope to survive and thrive, is a great benefit. In the end, he was saying that, aside from actually being struck down with heart disease, stroke or cancer, you can have an effect on if you contract stress related diseases with your mind and the attitude. Paraphrasing, As a physiologist who has studied stress for many years, I clearly see that the physiology of the system is often no more decisive than the psychology. Looking at our everyday stresses, traffic jams, anxieties of relationships, money worries, overwork. Few of them are real physical threats, warranting the stress response our bodies provide. This quote was pretty pithy, "In our privileged lives, we are uniquely smart enough to have invented these stressors and uniquely foolish enough to let them too often dominate our lives, surely we have the potential to be uniquely wise enough to banish their stressful hold."

Michael Connolly

Sapolsky is a physiologist and primatologist. He discusses the role of stress in many of the body's systems, including the cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal, growth, sex, immune, pain, mrmory, sleep, aging and mental health. The effects of stress are mediated by both the autonomic nervous system and hormones. The autonomic nervous system has three parts: the sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric. The sympathetic nervous system releases epinephrine and norepinephrine into the blood. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates the production of insulin. Stress promotes insulin resistance, which can lead to Type II diabetis. The enteric nervous system is in the intestine and regulates digestion. Sapolsky concentrates mainly on the hormones. The major stress hormones are: epinephrine, norepinephrine, glucocorticoid and glucagon. The fast acting hormones are epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. But Sapolsky concentrates mainly on the long acting hormones, which are called glucocorticoids. The gluco comes from the fact that they help control glucose metabolism. The cortico is from where the body synthesizes them: the cortex of the adrenal glands, which sit on the kidneys. The oid is from steroid. Stress causes the production of glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids include cortisone and hydrocortisone, the latter also known as cortisol. Artificial glucocorticoids include prednisone and prednisolone, which are used medically to suppress immune response in autoimmune diseases, such as MS, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Cushing's Syndrome can be caused by being given too much cortisone, or naturally, by a tumor on the pituitary gland, in which case it is called Cushing's Disease. Addison's Disease is a rare disorder where the adrenal glands do not produce enough glucocorticoids. Sapolsky has a chapter on the relationship between stress and cardiovascular disease. LDL deposits cholesterol onto the arterial plaques. HDL removes cholesterol from plaques and deposits it in the liver. People with chronic fatigue syndrome have low levels of glucocorticoid in the blood stream. The vagus nerve slows down the heartbeat. Damaged heart muscle is more vulnerable to fibrillation. Ventricular fibrillation often causes a heart attack and death. The term Type A was introduced by Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman in the 1960s to describe a personality type that was more likely to have heart disease. Their ideas have been refined over the years. Current opinion is tat unexpressed hostility is a risk factor for heart disease in young and middle aged people.There are two kinds of gastrointestinal disorder: organic and functional. Peptic ulcer is organic. IBS is functional. Functional disorders are sensitive to stress. IBS is caused by overly sensitive intestines. People with IBS have gassy and distended bowels. Childhood trauma is a cause of IBS.Australian pathologist Robert Warren discovered the Helicobacter pylori bacteria. Barry Marshall found the link with ulcers. The combination of stress and H. Pylori causes ulcers.Sapolsky talks about stress dwarfism. Growth hormone stimulates bone growth, cell division and the release of energy stored in fat cells. People who have stressful childhoods tend to be shorter than average. The absence of physical affection from mothers is a cause of stress dwarfism. Sapolsky also talks about the importance of making sure that preemies get plenty of physical stimulation. Stress reduces the immune response, which is why we are more likely to get colds when we are stressed. Also, latent viruses can detect the level of glucocorticoid hormones. This has been found in the herpes, Epstein-Barr and varicella-zoster (chicken pox and shingles). The Freudian school saw depression as aggression turned inwards. Aaron Beck believes depression is more a thought disorder than an emotion disorder. Depressed people see the world in a pessimistic way. Martin Seligman introduced the concept of learned helplessness. Martin Seligman saw the depressed person not as generally pessimistic, but pessimistic regarding the effectiveness of his own actions. Three of the symptoms of depression can be correlated with neurotransmitters. Anhedonia (dysphoria) correlates with dopamine. Psychomotor retardation (sluggishness) involves norepinephrin. Suicidal ideation correlates with serotonin. The causes of depression include the stresses of life, a genetic predisposition, and low thyroid hormone. Unipolar depression is much more common in women than men. Currently, there is research to understand the relationship between female sex hormones and postpartum depression. Amygdala handles fear. Anxiety disorders inclued OCD, PTSD and phobias. People suffering from anxiety disorders have exagerated startle responses. They fear menace. The amygdala controls the emotional reaction to pain. When patients are given control over their morphine drip, it reduces the level of stress, even if the amount of medication is the same as the nurse-dispensed morphine. This is because the element of unpredicability is removed. When a patient presses the call button, the patient does not know how long it will take the nurse to show up, or whether the nurse will be willing to give the patient more morphine.

J. Erickson

This is where I really get “geeky” or over the top excited! This is a classic – by that I mean this is a text book that is easy to read, filled with information regarding the brain, autonomic system, fight, flight responses, stress, and it all is easy to read, understand and fits nicely with psychopathology courses I have taught over the years to graduate students. Further, this is one of the only books I've read where the footnotes have note, and these notes are so interesting that I need to make an effort to read the book first, re-read the foot notes and notes, and then took notes to use for teaching. Clearly it's not Dr. Sapolsky's first day on the job! Further, while this is an older version, the enclosed material is still applicable today. Excellent book and highly recommended!

Chris Herdt

This book is a good introduction to stress and its effects on physiology and psychology (Nicola's area of expertise). Although it is written for a lay audience, I often got the feeling it was written for a lay audience of primarily MDs.By the end of the book, you will feel like you and epinephrine, norepinephrine, and glucocorticoids are all old friends--but in spite of the terminology, it is really an easy read and full of good humor and interesting anecdotes (e.g. hyenas are very peculiar).Here is a quote, taken out of context, that I enjoyed:"Every child cannot grow up to be president; it turned out that merely by holding hands and singing folk songs we couldn't end all war, and hunger does not disappear just by visualizing a world without it....Would that it were so. And shame on those who would sell this view."You may not like all of his opinions. Sapolsky is an unapologetic atheist, but appears to have a high opinion of many religious people. He also speaks frankly about sex. He also believes in animal testing, although he thinks that some past tests went too far.


How much fighting-or-fleeing have you had to do lately? For most of us, probably not much. In this very readable but thoroughly researched book, Sapolsky makes the point that a) we need a stress response but b) if you repeatedly turn on your stress response or you can't turn it off when it isn't needed, your response has the potential to increase the risk of disease with measurable effects on memory, and many of our organ systems. The author is self-deprecating and at times really funny, and after the first chapter you'll barely notice the names of all the hormones. I thought there was a fair bit of animal torture going on with all the research (stressing rats and other animals to see what they do) but he is only quoting what has already been done, and he does have the grace to say at one point that he wasn't entirely happy with some of the experiments. The final part of the book is devoted to exploring why some people are good at dealing with stress, finding out what they are doing right, and making suggestions for the rest of us. And you will find out why zebras don't get ulcers, in case that was a burning question.

William Mooney

On the cover, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers has a blurb from Kirkus Reviews saying "First-rate science for nonscientist" and I completely agree. I most enjoyed the variety of ways Sapolsky looked at stress and stress-response. He not only described how stress response affects some of our most important organs and functions, but looks at the science behind stress itself and why it can vary so much among people and animals. Furthermore, he goes beyond describing the biological processes by citing a variety of studies and throwing in some memorable anecdotes. Most importantly, he does all of this in a way that is approachable for people who don't have much previous knowledge on some of the inner-workings of our bodies. However this inevitably means it is a long book, and at times it can seem repetitive, Nevertheless, if anyone is interested in (mental) health, but might not specialize in it, I think this would be a great read.

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